If we call the current NFL a quarterback-driven league, the group of young quarterbacks coming up dictates that it'll be this way for quite a while. For me, it really starts with the under age 27 group. If you consider Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers the elite older group, you could easily point to 10 young starters in an under-27 group that will see a few members rise to the elite level. But the question I hear often isn't just about who is the best among the younger guys, it's about who could rise the highest. It's a phrase you hear a lot in baseball: Who has the highest ceiling?
So let's take a shot, but first add a little context.
As people see all this success from the younger guys, I think they need to wrap their heads around some reasons it has happened. It starts with the way the college and even high school game translates to the pro game.
• A forced hand: The college game has really forced the hand of NFL coaches. Given the variety of formations and schemes guys are working out of at the college level, coaches know that if they intend to use a quarterback early, they need to adjust the offense to what the quarterback knows best, not the other way around. That's why you're seeing more pass-first, single-back sets. You're seeing more shotguns. And while you don't see what is often called a spread at the college level, you see a lot of the routes college teams run out of the spread. Bottom line: Coaches are finding concepts quarterbacks can latch onto early.
• Atmospheric conditioning: Look at recent top picks, such as Matthew Stafford and Mark Sanchez, Cam Newton and even Matt Ryan. They're playing under bright lights, in bigger settings and with increased media scrutiny well before the draft. I really struggled with the transition and the pressure, and so did guys such as Tim Couch, Ryan Leaf or even David Carr. But this group seems better conditioned for both the setting and the pressure. The athletes may be better, but the NFL setting doesn't awe these guys.
• Making their own calls: College quarterbacks are asked to do more at the line of scrimmage now. The last five years we've seen a big jump in football IQ among young quarterbacks who make more of their own audible calls, recognize blitz packages and adjust on the fly. I study quarterbacks from high school through 15-year NFL vets, and the requirements for the younger guys have increased, making the NFL transition easier.
Of these quarterbacks in the under-27 group with the highest ceilings, all those things are true. So let's look at each of these guys, why their ceilings are so high and the challenges each faces. (And quickly: I often refer to arm talent. It actually correlates well with baseball. In both sports we talk about arm strength, the elite fastball being akin to the ability to throw the deep ball. But arm talent is about variety. Think about Tim Lincecum, who has good velocity but doesn't need to throw 100 mph because of his changeup. Arm talent is about diversity, about having all the throws. Overall, it's the ability to change speed and trajectory as the throw dictates.)
Here's what factors in. "Ceiling" is about how far a guy can ascend. It's NOT about who is better right now. For me, it's age, arm talent, setting, presence, smarts, growth so far and the ability to learn. And remember this caveat: to me, ceiling also reflects that bigger idea of a QB's place in the game. Can he be brilliant and the right person in the right setting that can allow people to see and appreciate it? Will the team be built to his strengths? It all factors in.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
1. Josh Freeman (23), Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Strengths: Freeman is one of a few quarterbacks in history who made 16 starts in a season before he ever turned 23. That group includes good company, such as Manning and Drew Bledsoe. Freeman is blessed with maturity, poise and the kind of build evaluators look for, at 6-foot-6, 248 pounds. He's an athletic guy in a frame that seems to imply durability. He also has elite arm talent. He has a fastball, but can dial it down well for his age. He's far too often called a big-armed quarterback. He has a lot more, and is still growing, which is key for this exercise. Freeman's greatest skill so far is how he extends plays -- he uses his legs but keeps his head up, like a more athletic version of Roethlisberger.
Challenges: Tampa has added some good talent around Freeman, but it's yet to be seen if he'll have elite talent around him. Tampa also hasn't yet been the setting for quarterback stardom. It fights the smaller-market label, so Freeman could be very good, but could battle relevancy until they achieve big things as a franchise. He's also still just learning to get past his second read, meaning he doesn't get to his third or fourth option in his reads. That's a common theme for young quarterbacks.